Mall shooting was Oregon's top news story for 2012

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. — In a suburban Portland shopping mall, a gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire on Christmas shoppers. In timber country, sheriffs and district attorneys were forced to free inmates because of budget cuts. And on the coast, a dock the size of a boxcar, torn loose from a Japanese port by the 2011 tsunami, washed up on the beach.

Through it all, Oregon’s famous wandering wolf, known as OR-7, roamed the tall timber and brushlands of Northern California looking for a mate, though no other wolves are known to be in that state.

In sports, University of Oregon head football coach Chip Kelly decided to stay a Duck rather than chase fame in the NFL. Blazers head coach Nate McMillian didn’t get a choice. He was fired as part of a massive overhaul that included the release of the oft-injured No. 1 overall draft pick, Greg Oden. Bend star Ashton Eaton saw a highway named in his honor after winning the decathlon gold medal at the London Olympics.

These were among the top news stories of 2012 in Oregon, chosen by editors around the state.

As horrific as the shooting at Clackamas Town Center mall was, leaving two shoppers dead and one seriously wounded before the shooter took his own life, it was quickly eclipsed by another on the opposite coast. In Newtown, Conn., a young man armed with a similar military-style rifle killed his mother at home, then systematically killed everyone he could at an elementary school before taking his own life.

While the two events helped trigger a national debate over gun control, law enforcement authorities in Oregon’s timber counties struggled to keep the criminal justice system functioning with fewer prosecutors, fewer sheriffs’ patrols, and fewer jail guards. One inmate released from the jail in Eugene was arrested about an hour later on a bank robbery charge.

Warnings from sheriffs and district attorneys went unheeded by voters, who refused to approve new taxes to fill the gap from expiring federal timber subsidies. Meanwhile, a bipartisan proposal to boost logging revenues for counties from federal lands in Western Oregon could not get traction in Congress, forcing some local leaders to take a new look at raising taxes.

Despite a tight federal budget, the Obama administration sent $1.9 billion to Oregon so Gov. John Kitzhaber could try out his ideas on saving money on Medicaid. The plan is to invest in preventive care to keep low-income patients healthy so they don’t need expensive hospital care.

Kitzhaber got an added boost from voters, who returned the Democratic Party to the majority in the state House, ending two years of power sharing with Republicans.

State lawmakers held their first regular legislative session in an even year since voters decided they should meet annually, and Kitzhaber got everything he asked for — four measures dealing with health care and education. In the final hours, lawmakers reached a compromise on legislation to help distressed homeowners facing foreclosure. In the struggle to balance the budget with revenues strained by recession, state agencies took cuts, but funding was maintained for schools, and prisons were not closed.

The state’s economy labored in a low gear through a recovery from the Great Recession. Intel announced plans for further expansion in Hillsboro, and Kitzhaber and the Legislature gave Nike the tax guarantee it demanded to pursue its expansion in Oregon. Unemployment remained high, above 8 percent, amid scant job growth. Some housing markets improved, but attempts to deal with foreclosures faltered.

The legislative successes didn’t spare the governor from being sued by death row inmate Gary Haugen, who has been demanding to be executed. Haugen hoped to overturn Kitzhaber’s refusal to sign any death warrants.

Summer wildfires raged across the drought-parched rangelands of southeastern Oregon, killing scores of cattle and leaving little to graze on for the ones that survived. With the Farm Bill stalled in Congress, the federal government could offer little help.

In the Willamette Valley, the problem was too much rain. Flooding in January inundated the town of Turner and other communities. Rapidly rising waters swept four people in a car from a grocery store parking lot into a creek in Albany. A father and his 5-year-old son survived, but a mother and her 1-year-old son died.

Marijuana advocates took a hit. Voters refused to join Washington state and Colorado in legalizing pot. And federal prosecutors continued to crack down on medical marijuana growers selling their excess crops on the black market. Among the grows cut down and hauled away was one widely considered to be the state’s biggest: High Hopes Farm in the Jackson County community of Ruch, which grew for 200 patients.

There have been no criminal charges in that case. But among the registered medical marijuana growers going to federal prison was a Grants Pass bike shop owner. Jason Michael Scott Nelson admitted taking advantage of the system out of greed before being sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for conspiring to illegally sell his indoor crop and having machine guns and illegal firearms.

OR-7 managed to stay out of trouble, if not out of sight. He was spotted cavorting with coyotes by a federal trapper, a state game warden and a state wildlife biologist while notifying ranchers that his GPS collar showed he was in the area. The biologist managed to snap the first color photograph of the wolf.

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